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Music Reviews: The Latest in Irish and Irish American Music

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Grá agus Bás • Donnacha Dennehy with Dawn Upshaw, Iarla O Lionáird, Crash Ensemble and Alan Pierson

The tradition of sean-nós singing is one not frequently emerging on today’s world stage. Its very name means “old style” and has long remained in the context of historical study in Ireland’s musical development. The (normally unaccompanied) nasally, highly ornamented form is a sparsely found art form in Ireland now. However, Donnacha Dennehy found it absolutely facisnating and has reinvented it in many ways with Grá agus Bás. His extensive research and training is evident in the recordings. The title track conducted by Dennehy and sung by Iarla O Lionáird, was commissioned by Trinity College in Dublin.

The remaining tracks of Grá agus Bás continue in this tribute form to Ireland, taking texts from W.B. Yeats poems. The feel to the remaining tracks are drastically different to the sean-nós of “Grá agus Bás.” With a much more modern classical approach, Dennehy melds the haunting voice of soprano Dawn Upshaw with traditional Irish and orchestral instrumentation beautifully. The tracks are at times frightening, moving rapidly and threateningly, and at other times they are melancholy and soaring.  With Upshaw’s operatic contribution and Dennehy’s unbelievable range of composition, the album is like a journey through Ireland’s musical and cultural life. From the oral tradition of the sean-nós, moving into the Western European Classical influence, tied together with the words of Yeats. It is a true triumph as a collection.

Monongah • Kyle Carey

A bright new face to the Celtic music scene, Kyle Carey released her debut album, Monongah, a refreshing collection of originals which blend Carey’s own Appalachian and Irish roots. It is clear on the record that Carey’s youthful excitement feared no combination of folk influences, taking from the Breton, Scottish and Irish traditions.

Recorded in the west of Ireland early this year, Monongah features a slew of expert musicians anchored by Carey’s guitar and honey sweet vocals. Aoife Clancy lends harmony vocals to the tracks, an added dimension too often shied away from in modern Celtic interpretations. “Orange Blossom” is perhaps the track which best emphasizes the lyricist in Kyle Carey. It tells the story of a woman losing her love to drink. It resonates easily with the singer-songwriter audience while “Gaol Ise Gaol I” showcases her love and knowledge of the Celtic tradition. Carey explores a great many worlds within folk tradition in this promising debut record. Here’s hoping there are more ideas and eagerness to come from Carey in the future.

Singing in the Dark • Susan McKeown

For years Susan McKeown’s records have explored old favorites refreshed with the new timbers of her voice. What separates her newest album, Singing in the Dark from her previous work, is the incredibly intimate subject matter. McKeown discovered in exploring her family history a high rate of mental illness in the creative members of her ancestral tree. Fascinated by the troubles associated with the creative mind, McKeown put together this collection of songs which explore the tremendous highs and lows of the creative mind.

The arrangements on her track “Mad Sweeney” are breathtaking,  a haunting clash of instrumentation built around McKeown’s interpretation of a centuries-old Irish manuscript. Mckeown also succeeds gracefully in reintrepreting Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” and Anne Sexton’s “A Woman Like That (Her Kind).” McKeown’s voice is at times sailing and at times trembling, attacking and retreating with the very emotional fervor she set out to communicate.

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